- Below Freezing: Elegy for the Melting Planet by Donald Anderson
In memorable lines from “The Snow Man,” Wallace Stevens tells us, “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost. . . .” For many readers, the pronouncement is simply chilling, but some of us consider it a manifesto. We “regard” frost and embrace being, in the poet’s words, “cold a long time.” We treasure wintrum frod, the Old English phrase for the wisdom that comes from living through many winters. Because I am this sort of person, I have written about Muscovites and Englishmen in the Renaissance. I have tried to explain the cold in Hamlet. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter every year when the first snow comes. My brumal bona fi-des matter because I want to recommend Donald Anderson’s Below Freezing: Elegy for the Melting Planet to you as essential reading for winter minds trapped on a warming planet.
A gifted and accomplished writer of fiction and poetry, Anderson curates a life of reading about and living in the cold. In her eloquent foreword, Aritha van Herk rightly describes the book as a “collage-ledger,” creating a kind of “chiaroscuro.” In Below Freezing, Anderson’s stories of memory drift alongside boreal history (the Children’s Blizzard of 1888, the Air Florida plane crash in 1982), frigid facts (the summit temperature of Mt. Everest and the age of permafrost in Alaska), and a wide range of voices. We hear from Jimbo from Wreckmasters, reporters in the Denver Post, and Travis, who once ran out into the Alaskan cold on Christmas Eve. In striking ways, these voices jostle with those of Emily Dickinson, Robert Hayden, James Joyce, John Krakauer, Barry Lopez, and Jeanette Winterson, to name a few. Along the way, Anderson caches bits of cold classics such as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” [End Page 295]
Through it all, Anderson never loses sight of his focus: here is a timely, perhaps belated, reckoning with climate change and memory. The book’s first page announces the focus with a precise juxta-position of a Denver Post article quantifying the reduction of Arctic sea ice and Anderson’s memories of mittens.
Readers with a special interest in the American West will find the book particularly appealing. With the opening paragraph, Anderson orients his project on the map of North America: “That mittens outwork gloves was a lesson learned, growing up in Montana— sure knowledge more aptly confirmed when an Air Force assignment landed me at a radar site in Alaska, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle” (3). Skipping back and forth between Butte, Montana, and the Arctic Circle, between recollections of family life and Air Force duties, Anderson assays Western memories of winter, holding them up in mittened hands. One need not have a mind of winter to appreciate the craftsmanship of the book and relish the accumulated wisdom.
In fact, it is Anderson’s memory work that creates arcs, large and minute, in the book as he recalls attaching his tongue to a galvanized elementary school post, falling behind his father while snowshoeing through a storm, his father making ice cream out of icicles, his daughter determined to drive the old Datsun on a bitter day, and Bill Secours having survived a Grizzly Bear attack. In memory after memory, Anderson’s wry voice brings the book to life, sometimes for what he writes, other times for how he has listened: “I asked [Secours] for advice to survive in the North. Don’t eat yellow snow, he advised, serious as a bear attack” (148).
The result is often bracing and beautiful, marked by wonder and wit, but never precious. Late in the book, readers may anticipate some sort of fanciful consolation as Anderson collects snowflake encomia: Winterson remarking on the wonder of snowflakes; a Zen proverb observing “No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place”; Thoreau remembering a particular snowflake and how it “reminded me...